“It was a night of pure football as we had envisaged, with a marvellous atmosphere and against a team that fought until the end,” said Atlético Madrid coach Diego Simeone after his side battled past Leicester City.
Suffering is Atlético’s middle name, and how they strove to withstand a Leicester bombardment and make it to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals for the third time in four years.
Simeone’s side are always up for a fight and they looked strangely comfortable as they were forced to defend deep in the last half-hour after Jamie Vardy’s equaliser had given underdogs Leicester a chance.
With four centre-backs on the pitch after Juanfran and Filipe Luís had been forced off injured, Atleti were ready for everything Craig Shakespeare’s men could throw at them and had supreme confidence in the resilience of their rearguard.
- Report and highlights: Leicester v Atlético
Leicester had 22 shots to Atlético’s six over the course of the game, 18 of which came in the second half, but the Rojiblancos made an astonishing nine blocks to ensure goalkeeper Jan Oblak was rarely tested.
Diego Godín marshalled the team through the rocky final 30 minutes with three natural central defenders alongside him. Lucas Hernández was a huge presence deputising for Juanfran on the right and made a brilliant block from Leonardo Ulloa’s shot, while Stefan Savić’s experience of English football shone through as he batted away the high balls.
Playing José María Giménez in a holding midfield role paid dividends for Simeone in the first half as he had an extra experienced, combative defender on hand to deal with the constant aerial threat. The Uruguayan then found himself on the right of the back four for the final stages of the game after Filipe Luís’s injury, with Hernández switching to left-back.
“It took time to reset the defence but when we did it we were better able to manage the danger they kept unleashing,” said Simeone. “I’m delighted with how the team reinvents itself and keeps competing in tough situations. We did what the tie asked of us.”
They say defences win league titles, and Atlético’s resilient rearguard certainly played a huge part in their remarkable Liga conquest in 2013/14. Could their backline also end their long wait for a first UEFA Champions League triumph?
Atleti have kept nine consecutive clean sheets in UEFA Champions League knockout games at the Vicente Calderón, a record which will intimidate whoever is paired with them in Friday’s draw. And as they showed in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the Leicester City Stadium, they relish occasions when they are up against it.
“On my first day in charge, my only hope was to make Atlético competitive and frustrate every team we played and I think we are competing,” said Simeone. Having reached three semi-finals in four years, Atlético are doing that and more.